It was a dreary, drizzly night in Ladue. Nobody could see any stars in the sky. • Still, about a dozen parents and kids gathered in a circle in a meeting room at the St. Louis County Library Headquarters to learn about the telescopes they could check out from the library to take home. • Amanda Ismail of Ballwin brought her daughters, Sarah Zakarneh, 7, and Sofia Zakarneh, 6. Back on Aug. 21, they had watched the total solar eclipse together at the girls’ elementary school.
Ismail said that since then, the girls had taken more notice of the moon, pointing out when it’s full or a crescent. “This is really cool,” she said of the telescopes and planned to check one out for clearer skies.
For the months leading up to the eclipse, area astronomy clubs and those running observatories and planetariums worked to educate the public about what they would see in the sky on eclipse day. But what has happened since? Clubs and educators say they have seen some bump in interest since then, and they continue to welcome anyone who wants to learn more.
For Don Ficken and the members of the St. Louis Astronomical Society, who teach the classes at the libraries, they were so busy in the months leading up to the eclipse that they’ve used the months since to tend to the telescopes in the library telescope program, which they started in 2014.
Patrons can check out quality, 4.5-inch telescopes from the library. The club keeps them in working order, cleaning the mirrors and making fixes where needed. Recent “star parties” held at local libraries have attracted decent crowds, with about 45 attending the one in Festus. That was another cloudy night, and so many people still showed up they had to bring in extra chairs, Ficken said.
“Jefferson County is bonkers right now,” said Ficken. The path of totality went through Jefferson County, he pointed out. “They remember everything about it. They’re just crazy about it.”
The society now has about 180 members, about a 22 percent increase since the end of the year, he said.
He said the eclipse has brought members of the different astronomical clubs together, and said he hosted members of three clubs in his garage one recent Sunday to alter telescopes for the library program.
“Three years ago, we didn’t know who the others were,” he said. “We’re all talking the same message.”
Eric Gustafson, an educator in the planetarium of the St. Louis Science Center, says the eclipse has served as a nice entry point during interactive star shows, when they try to get people to answer questions.
“Not everyone wants to speak up in a crowd, but if you ask them about the eclipse, that almost instantly opens everyone up. That’s a memory for them, and it’s accessible to them, and it opens up things to the rest of science.”
There’s still plenty of stuff to see, say enthusiasts, and local astronomy groups and other educators are willing to help you.
People got excited by the total lunar eclipse in late January. What’s the next big thing? Astronomy Day is on April 21, with some clubs hosting special events. Mars will be especially bright this summer. And there’s the Perseid meteor showers from Aug. 11-13 this year, and the Geminids on Dec. 13-14. Some other good comets are expected later in the year, but those are fickle.
Rick Schwentker, a retired Washington High School physics teacher, is the president of the Eastern Missouri Dark Sky Observers, which hosts monthly stargazing events at East Central College’s Observatory in Union . They plan to build a new observatory at a conference center in New Haven in the next few years but are still working out details.
After the eclipse, they had an increase in their club size and had more people show up at stargazing sessions, but it’s hard to measure since they shut down sessions during the winter.
He and other club members bought several exercise balls and athletic balls and painted them the colors of the planets for a lesson in scale. The balls were on display during Washington’s solar eclipse celebrations.
Now, they sit in Schwentker’s basement, he says, laughing.
But he’s lent them to a couple of groups since and hopes to use them in the future. If it helps to drum up excitement, he’s happy.
“I’m a teacher by trade; my interest is dragging people out to see something,” he said. “I just like to watch their reaction.”
David Horne teaches physics classes at UMSL and runs the observatory on campus. It has a 16-inch telescope that’s used for student research and public observations, and they renovated their planetarium system two years ago.
Horne narrated and created the graphics for a new eclipse show, which they’ve shown since August.
He sees an upswing in students taking basic courses, such as prospective teachers taking astronomy to fulfill a basic science requirement. But who knows how the eclipse of August 2017 will inspire them in the future?
“We found a lot of people that were coming out during that eclipse who said they saw an eclipse in 1970 something, and that’s why they liked to do it, and that’s why they did the rest of their lives,” he said. “It’s hard to say how many people who saw that eclipse will take that path.”
Jim Twellman is the executive director for the Astronomical Society of Eastern Missouri, which hosts viewing events every Friday night at their observatory in Broemmelsiek Park in St. Charles County. He’s seen more scout groups showing up, but it’s hard to say if the eclipse or a general population shift is responsible.
He loves any chance to get today’s digital kids outside. Half the fun of stargazing is listening to whippoorwills, seeing tons of fireflies, hearing owls hoot and deer grunt, he said.
And then, there’s always the thrill of looking up. “I sometimes say this hobby is like a treasure hunt and the Fourth of July,” he said. “You have the fun of finding it, and then you get the ooh and ahh.”
Hopefully, the astronomers say, the groundwork is laid to build excitement for the next big thing: the area’s solar eclipse on April 8, 2024.
Pattonville Observatory and Planetarium • This observatory at Pattonville Middle School hosts viewings twice a month. The next one is 8:30-10:30 p.m. April 13 at 195 Fee Fee Road, Maryland Heights. observatory.psdr3.org
Astronomical Society of Eastern Missouri • This group hosts public viewing nights every Friday night in clear weather at Broemmelsiek Park in St. Charles County. They’re usually from 8-10 p.m. this time of year. They host other meetings throughout the month, including one for people interested in astrophotography. asemonline.org
UMSL Planetarium Schwartz Observatory • The observatory on the campus of the University of Missouri-St. Louis is used for research and public education, and the planetarium will put on shows for school groups. The observatory hosts an open house every month, and the next one is at 8 p.m. April 21. umsl.edu/~umslplanetarium/
St. Louis Science Center • They host daily planetarium shows, and the St. Louis Astronomical Society hosts public star parties at the center’s first Friday events. The next event is scheduled for 7 p.m. May 4. The science center also posts weekly night sky updates on its website. slsc.org
St. Louis Astronomical Society • The St. Louis Astronomical Society meets regularly to hear speakers and hosts star parties at libraries, schools and parks throughout the month. They also help oversee telescope checkout programs at area libraries. slasonline.org
Eastern Missouri Dark Sky Observers • This group of amateur astronomers hosts monthly viewing events at East Central College’s observatory in Union. Their next viewing event there is April 28 at dusk. emdso.org
River Bend Astronomy Club • This amateur club, based in Highland, hosts community events as well as regular meetings. Their next community event is an Astronomy Night at the Edwardsville Children’s Museum, 722 Holyoake Road in Edwardsville, on April 20 from 5:30-7:30 p.m. riverbendastro.org
William C. Shaw Skylab at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville • To supplement their course in astronomy, the SIUE Physics department hosts star parties on even-numbered Mondays an hour after dusk, weather permitting. siue.edu/artsandsciences/physics/astronomical/index.shtml